*Broadway and theater marketing experts, Cherine E. Anderson and Donna Walker-Kuhne have led multicultural marketing, media, promotional, and audience development campaigns in the performing arts for over 30 years.
In 2007, Anderson and Walker-Kuhne joined forces through Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Impact Broadway and Walker International Communications Group and have established a solid reputation globally for their innovative and unique approach to marketing.
As a team, they have partnered on many critically-acclaimed Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including Ragtime Revival, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Baby It’s You, Time Stands Still, Stick Fly, Driving Miss Daisy, Ann on Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun, The Trip to Bountiful, A Streetcar Named Desire, HUGHIE, Autumn, Brothers From the Bottom, Dancing on Eggshells, Marie and Rosetta, and Notes From The Field, among numerous others.
In recognition of Black History Month, Anderson and Walker-Kuhne talk with Gwendolyn Quinn about their journey on the Great White Way, the State of African Americans on Broadway and in theater; and why it’s important to support the arts.
Inside Broadway: When did you fall in love with theater?
Donna Walker-Kuhne: I felt in love with theater when I was 5 years old. I grew up in Chicago. My mom took my twin sister and I to the Bolshoi Ballet. I saw Maya Plisetskaya, who at that time was the reigning ballerina in the world. It was a performance of Swan Lake. I told my mom, “that’s me, that’s what I want to do.” That moment has been my entire life. I felt in love with dance, music, and theater.
Cherine E. Anderson: My mom is a soprano singer. I was born in Jamaica, West Indies. As a little girl, I remember watching my mother sing on television. When I came to this country in 1976, we [Mom and I] lived on the Upper West Side. My mother would take me to Lincoln Center to see the opera. Now as a kid, you fall asleep, wake up three hours later, the opera is still going on. Then one day, she took me to The Wiz, my first Broadway show, starring Stephanie Mills. I was hooked since then.
IB: Why is it important for African Americans to go to the theater?
DWK: It’s important to see our stories, to hear our stories, and to be able to experience what it’s like to see the magic of a live performance, even if it’s not about African Americans. I went to see Dear Evan Hansen recently, and that’s not a story that’s specifically about black people; it’s a story about people. I think every single person should see that show. I think it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life.
If we don’t go to the theater, then we risk not having our stories told, and we lose our history and our legacy. By going to the theater, we validate why our stories are important and why we have to see them. How do we become classic? August Wilson is now being produced everywhere—in film, in theater, wherever you go; so is Shakespeare. Why can’t African Americans have that same legacy of classic writers that we’ll watch 400 or 500 years from now? We have to plant that seed now. That’s why we have to go, get your butt up and go.
CEA: I echo Donna’s sentiments, but I think it’s critical for our community to support our shows. It’s not always about a named star in a production. Not every actor will be a Denzel Washington or Viola Davis of the world. We have some talented African Americans and diverse performers who are doing great work in the Broadway and Off-Broadway space. They are not necessarily A-list actors, but they are talented, and we need our communities to patronize these shows so that they can make it to that Denzel Washington and Viola Davis level.
Often these shows have a very limited run, especially Off Broadway and even sometimes on Broadway. For a show to be sustained, it’s all about “we have to sell tickets.” It’s important when our audiences see and hear about these shows, and especially if they’re getting a positive buzz, we need to get on the phone and we need to go to the box office and purchase tickets immediately.
Our shows close quickly because the support does not come out early enough. There are some great shows that have closed early. We need our community to encourage those up-and-coming performers and to demonstrate to the theater community that if they invest in bringing a show that relates to us, to our experience, that we will support it.
IB: Which African American playwright and director do you feel changed the course of theater for African Americans and why?
CEA: In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry was the first African American woman who produced her play on Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun. And 13 years later in 1972, Vinnette Carroll became the first African American woman to co-produce and direct a musical on Broadway, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, which had a musical score by the first African American woman to do so, Micki Grant. These three women changed the course for African Americans on the Great White Way. Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope received five Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. Ms. Carroll also went on to direct Your Arm’s Too Short to Box With God. This is the history that needs to be known. To quote James Baldwin, “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
DWK: George C. Wolfe, hands down. George writes stories about African Americans in a way that’s not just telling a story, but it’s also thought provoking. It enables you to think about how you connect to the story; you discover something that you didn’t know about your history. It’s always presented in a way that it’s intellectually stimulating. There’s no dumbing down in any of his work. I feel like you have to think on your highest level to grasp and understand George’s work. He is the consummate director and writer for Broadway.
IB: What was your best and most memorable Broadway production?
CEA: Dreamgirls. I liked Dreamgirls because it showcased three powerful women and what they could accomplish. I was enthralled by the music and the costumes as well as the production value.
DWK: Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. I understood the show from the concept, from the inception. It had the brilliance of Savion Glover and Zane Mark. I was in the room as they shaped this production and it was an extraordinary experience. They created this vehicle that told the history of African Americans through music and tap. When I first started working on the show, it was a workshop that we did at the Public Theater [New York City], and then we decided to open the season. I sold out the first weekend, and after that, all the shows sold out. People found themselves in the story, regardless of color. They saw that this is what America looks like, this is the history of America, that didn’t make you feel bad. So many white people said, “Wow, I learned so much about black history, and I don’t feel bad.” It was so uplifting. I witnessed the impact it had on young black Americans. I had students who wanted to pay full price for tickets because they wanted to sit in the front. They didn’t want balcony seats. Then, we launched the national tour of Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, where I was the director of audience development. I traveled to 23 cities three times to build an audience development initiative in every single city.
IB: What is your favorite Off Broadway show and why?
CEA: My favorite Off Broadway show is Ruined by Lynn Nottage. Lynn is a prolific writer who tackles uncomfortable subjects. Ruined is about the struggle of the women in the Congo of Africa, it also showed their strength and endurance and brought to our attention what these women were going through. The production had a powerful cast. In 2009, Lynn won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. She writes real stories that are relatable.
DWK: I would say Harlem Song at the Apollo Theater in 2002. We made a big impact in Harlem. Harlem Song was the first Broadway-type production at the Apollo. We were able to demonstrate that the Harlem community, which at that time was not yet gentrified, was predominantly all African American; 67 percent of the audience for Harlem Song came from the community, filling those 1,500 seats over a four-month period. The fact that we were able to work with the businesses in Harlem created a model of economic impact. The economic impact of Harlem Song was substantial. The restaurants increased business by 400 percent. The way we set up the production was that people would spill out of the Apollo and eat at several of the designated restaurants. There was a real economic impact that happened in the community as well as a great show.
I love that Harlem Song created a model for the Apollo. From the success of this show, it then became perceived as a venue to do musicals. My company was then hired to do the marketing for all of the musicals that came through the Apollo, including the Dreamgirls tour, Midnight’s Children, and the Jackie Wilson Story, we did all of them.
IB: From a marketing and audience development standpoint, which theater project are you most proud of?
DWK: Stick Fly. Cherine would probably agree with me. Stick Fly was the epitome of everything coming together beautifully and run by an incredible producer, Nelle Nugent. Stick Fly was a great story, and Nelle Nugent gave us total trust. You can work with some people, and they always have one eye on you, as if you don’t know what you’re doing. Nelle trusted us 1000 percent, and that’s rare in this business. We had an incredible play, a story that talked about affluent black folks, not slaves or people being beat up. We had the cachet of Alicia Keys’ name being attached to the project. We had a wonderful new playwright, first time on Broadway, who was totally accessible. When you have access to the cast, the playwright, and the producers are listening to you, then you can fly. Nelle Nugent told us that we did our jobs brilliantly. Over 70 percent of the audience, on average, was African American.
CEA: I would agree with Donna. It was a 360 collaborative effort. Nelle Nugent is awesome and incredible. We secured the cover of Black Enterprise. We organized an intimate breakfast at B. Smith’s restaurant and brought the cast members and some of our top tastemakers to meet each other. We did a partnership in Martha’s Vineyard with the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. One of the producers went up there and spoke. We did some unique and new promotions to promote that show.
IB: Who are some of your favorite theater actors and why?
CEA: One of my favorites is LaChanze. When she did Once On This Island at
Lincoln Center, I took my mom to see this production. I remember after the show, there was a meet and greet with the cast members, and LaChanze came out, and I said to my mom, “That’s the actress who played the role.” My mom said, “That little thing?” If someone had told me years later I would be working with LaChanze on the first Color Purple musical I’d be like, there’s no way.
DWK: Ruben Santiago-Hudson is my favorite. He’s a director, known primarily for directing now. He’s a beautiful actor. When we were doing the August Wilson series at the Signature Theatre, Ruben did some of the plays there. I could watch Ruben do anything. I think he is such a tender actor. He brings such a tenderness to his roles. Ruben is high on my list.
IB: In addition to Impact Broadway, what other community efforts and initiatives do you have planned?
CEA: Impact Broadway gives access to the students to go to shows, but in addition to that, we also expose other career opportunities in makeup, lighting, producing, and music. For Impact Broadway, we had a partnership with the Broadway League, where the kids had an opportunity to be in the rehearsal space for the Tony Awards. It was the first time that the kids of Impact Broadway had an opportunity to come and see what it meant to put on the Tony Awards. The kids were totally blown away.
More than just giving them tickets, we also had theater talent go to their schools and talk to them about their craft. It gave them exposure to what theater is about, and how they can also be involved.
DWK: Every show that we work, we make sure we are engaged with college students, and when appropriate, high school students. We have an initiative that is curriculum-based. We work with targeted college classes to come and see the work, to have the playwright or member of the cast come and speak to the students, and have a talk back with that cast.
That’s something; we keep that wherever we go. We work with the City College of New York, Columbia University, and Medgar Evers College to make sure we’re always connecting to students. In our marketing efforts, we also make sure from a social media perspective that we’re speaking to that demographic and engaging them. One of the members of our team is a college student, so she helps guide what those conversations should look like. That’s not separate, we incorporate that in our work, that’s part of how we roll out community engagement.
IB: Do you have plans to produce and write a theatrical production?
CEA: I have no interest in writing, but I’m an associate producer of the upcoming show Sweethearts of Swing. We’re trying to get to Off-Broadway first, and hopefully it will go to Broadway. We’re in the beginning stages. We just got selected by Lark Play Development Center. We will be there this summer at the Pocantico Center in Tarrytown, New York.
DWK: I have been asked to be an associate producer for the Broadway-bound show Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting. It’s about Jackie Robinson when he met with Mr. Rickey, who eventually signed him up to play on the Dodgers. That would be my first foray as a producer for Broadway. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is directing. Fortunately, this does not involve me putting up money as it does so much my resources and my brain. The idea of producing is an interesting one. I never considered it, but when I was asked I gave it some deep thought.
Black people need to be wherever decisions are being made. I’ve worked on 20 Broadway shows, and I’ve always been on the other side of the table as a consultant who was hired to bring in black people. I’d love to see what it feels like to be one of the decision makers who’s asking the questions. I’m looking forward to it.
IB: What’s next for you?
DWK: I am expanding my keynotes, lectures, and workshop engagements. I am also preparing for the 10th anniversary of Bite the Big Apple. It is a program I created with my Australian partner, where we bring more than 12 Australian arts administrators every year for a multicultural arts crawl, so they can learn about cultural diversity and take that learning back home.
For the past 10 years, we’ve been doing that, taking them to all the five boroughs, including Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, so that they can observe organizations that are smart about how they engage audiences. This October will mark our 10th year. We plan to have a big conference; we want to talk about the impact of cultural tourism here in New York. We’ve generated close to $1 million by having all of these people come and the money they spend while they’re here.
CEA: I will focus on Sweethearts of Swing, to get that moving to the next level. Then I will continue to explore other producing opportunities on Broadway and Off-Broadway.
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She is a contributor to BlackEnterprise.com and BE Pulse (via Medium.com), Huffington Post and EURWEB.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business.